Two days ago we nearly drowned. Our friend Maikeli (from the island of Matuku) did not make it. He was buried yesterday. We are sad, shocked and in pain. We did not go on a risky adventure, he just wanted us to take some underwater pictures of a reef pass put them in a report to the government about the installation of no-fishing Tabu zone there.

We were reluctant to go, the weather was overcast, we both had a cold, but we didn’t want to disappoint Maikeli and were eager to help with the good environmental intentions of our favourite island here in the Lau group. So we went down South to the Daku passage in his 24 ft open boat. Approaching the pass we saw that the swell was much higher than expected and we would never have taken our dinghy out in such conditions, but we thought Maikeli, who had spent all his 58 year on Matuku, knew how to judge the situation. The pass is short and exiting it on the ocean side, it became clear that the current wasn’t going in as we had thought, it was going out already because of the high swell! Additionally a current set us sideways, towards the breaking surf.

Suddenly this gigantic wave built up ahead of the boat–a 5 meter vertical wall. Maikeli gave full throttle, trying to climb it, but we had no chance. The boat was flipped backwards and crashed down on us together with tons and tons of frothing Pacific. Nobody who hasn’t been swallowed by such surf can imagine the panic of being whirled around, the thundering noise incredible loud, foaming turquoise everywhere, impossible to tell up from down, no more air, coming up coughing, struggling. Then the next wave breaking, the same struggle again and yet another one until we were back in shallower water on the reef. The capsized boat had righted itself, the anchor must have fallen out and so it anchored itself on the reef. Christian managed to climb up on it, shouting and waving for us to come, but Maikeli and I were grabbed by the current and swept out of the pass again, towards the Pacific and certain death. Looking back at Christian I thought that I was getting my last glimpse of him. It seemed so surreal, what a senseless way to die. This couldn’t be the end. My only chance was to swim sideways out of the 4 knot current. Maikeli was drifting next to me, holding on to the gasoline tank–that was the last time I saw him. I swam for my life, reached the breaking surf and got rolled and tossed across the reef again. Somehow I managed to reach the boat and Christian pulled me in, but we were still not safe. The boat was anchored in a precarious position: close enough to the drop-off into the pass to have a ripping current trying to suck us out and close enough to the outer edge of the barrier reef to have occasional waves breaking over the submerged boat–only the bow was sticking out and we were holding on to a line for dear life while I could feel broken ribs in my right side moving and grinding against each other. Christian was standing most of the time, looking for Maikeli, shouting, but no sign of him. We had to wait for another hour until a boat was passing by in the lagoon and spotted us.

They went back to Maikeli’s village Makadru first, we gave a breathless report and then were taken to Pitufa while the search for Maikeli was slowly organised. We washed our wounds and then Christian arranged cushions for me to lean/lie against on the sofa (where I’ve spent the last two days now). The doctor is currently in Suva and the hospital here has no x-ray machine anyway, but Ron, the friendly and very helpful nurse from the main village Yaroi, came to Pitufa, checked my vitals, agreed that at least 2 maybe 4 of my ribs are broken, put a bandage around my chest and supplied me with pain killers and antibiotics. As I’m able to breathe and not coughing blood it seems my lungs are okay. In the meantime Christian was called to shore twice to make phone calls to the police and navy to help organising a search, but it took another few hours until we could finally hear a search and rescue plane (or drone, we weren’t sure). During the night we were still hoping against hope, but in the morning Maikeli’s body was found.

It is simply ungraspable how quickly a routine excursion turned into a disaster. We are cautious, careful people, never have been in severe danger throughout the last 11 years of journey. To face death a few times in a row was a rattling experience. Our plans of leisurly cruising the Lau group are canceled, we have to sail to Suva as soon as the weather allows to get me to a hospital and then there’s a long path of recovery ahead–ribs heal very slowly (6 weeks our offline-wikipedia claims). Christian is also bruised all over, has hurt both his shoulders and is on pain killers as well. But we are certainly not complaining. Against all odds we are still here, still have each other.


  1. Dejan says:

    I am shaken to the core by your post.

    I discovered you two, Pitufa, and your journey a couple of months ago via Birgit’s article in Cruising World Magazine about using weather patterns and seasons to optimize French Polynesia cruising, and, in no time, I realized and came to appreciate how meaningful your endeavor is—much, much more than the sum of its functional parts. Thus I built a habit of visiting your blog for my daily dose of vicarious sailing and exploration from my home in Belgrade, Serbia, as I, aged fifty-two, prep myself to circumnavigate the world in the next life. The same was today, although I, admittingly, did come to check your situation in light of cyclone Gabrielle, fully aware that you are in cyclone season over there and that you mentioned earlier you are in a rather active weather phase.

    So, visiting your blog and reading about your experience and the loss of Maikeli’s life has overwhelmed me with sorrow. I lack words to express myself.

    And yet there is so much I would like to tell you, to offer you comfort, to show you that you are not alone in your sadness. No one should go through what you must be going through now, and I cannot even fathom how you might feel.

    In time, though, your bruises and injuries will heal, God willing, but emotional scars will remain. And yet they, however deep, are incomparable to the vast mourning archipelago Maikeli’s family and friends must navigate. I shall keep them all in my prayers.

    As far as you two go, I feel like you will always have each other, and I most certainly hope you will slowly recover and recuperate. But I guess, from now on, you will have two more tales to tell.

    The first one is that no matter how prudent one is—and you two are, like, epitomes of punctiliousness: staying in French Polynesia and South Pacific for like nine years flat, unscathed, during all cyclone seasons, not to mention sailing in Darien (seriously, who does that?)—Maikeli’s loss will reverberate through yours and lives of any reader of your blog as a stark reminder of the power of the ocean and unwavering respect we must have when facing it anytime, anyplace, any vessel, regardless of our experience.

    And the second one is that whatever we may have been through in our lives, God or Nature, depending on what you believe in—probably both; the two can be mutually inclusive in contrast to being rather exclusive—always find a way to remind us how brittle and fragile we are, how small we are, and how we should every single day celebrate the gift of the precious life we have received.

    I want to believe Maikeli was striving for the latter.

    Or, perhaps, in some weird and wonderful way of the Universe, he intuitively knew and felt what Gandhi once wrote: “Whatever you do in life will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it because you can’t know. You can’t ever really know the meaning of your life. And you don’t need to. Every life has a meaning, whether it lasts one hundred years or one hundred seconds. Every life, and every death, changes the world in its own way. You can’t know. So don’t take it for granted. But don’t take it too seriously. Don’t postpone what you want. Don’t leave anything misunderstood. Make sure the people you care about know. Make sure they know how you really feel. Because just like that, it could end.”

    I’ve chosen to believe that Maikeli truly wanted you to take those underwater pictures of a reef pass so the government would establish a no-fishing zone on Matuku Island. If so, I believe you could consider finishing what he has started. I think that would be something he would have wanted—to protect the precious marine wildlife—and I know, for a fact, that the two of you live and breathe such environmental conviction day in, day out. In doing so, you would honor him but also give yourself, I assume, much-needed closure.

    And, if you opt to do so, I believe such a no-fishing zone in Matuku Island could be officially named Maikeli No-Fishing Zone. In the end, of course, such a potential effort will be insignificant, but I believe it is very important that you two, the villagers of Makandru, and the Fijian government, at least try to do it.

    Then again, what do I know? I can’t know.

    One way or the other, both of you will be in my thoughts and prayers. I feel immensely saddened by your news. I know you will find the strength to recover.

    May God shower you with its choicest blessings—yup, I am one of those believers not entirely convinced whether God is male or female—and may you, other than each other, have fair winds and following seas.

    Very best, from the bottom of my heart,


  2. Wayne says:

    Very sorry to hear about this traumatic and very sad experience. I dare say it will take some time to recover physically and emotionally. I hope it doesn’t change your perspective on life and crusing. I enjoy reading your posts. Keep on keeping on. Accidents happen.

  3. Roy Neyman says:

    Hey, Christian! Hey, Birgit!

    I’m so glad you got through this mishap and have chosen to share it. I doubt that you’ve read my blog post about my reef encounter at Fakarave South Pass, but that near disaster gives me at least some small way to relate to what you’ve experienced.

    It is true that, what seems like a small thing, can rise up as a huge question in hind sight. If I had just thought not to trust that government buoy on a relatively calm night I mightn’t have pounded my boat on the unforgiving coral for an hour and a half. If you had just listened to your colds you might never have gone on that excursion.

    Ever since then I have questioned the sanity of the my cruising life, and yet I am compelled to finish what I started. Pounding on that reef rattled me to my very marrow, both literally and figuratively. You two are much more careful and sea-wise than I am, and I expect that the lessons that mother ocean teaches you are heartfully felt, …this lesson more deeply than any in your lives.

    There’s always something that we haven’t thought of or, worse, some little thought that we’ve ignored. The treacherous sea is there to take advantage, but our wits are there, too. Our wits tell us things like to swim sideways out of the current. Yours did. They saved you.

    So, what you are doing contributes greatly to the world. Your careful interest in the marine life, the islands, and the islands’ people is a wonderful thing. Your wits will continue to serve you well. It will take courage to carry on as before as this event lingers deep in your psyche. Keep your balance and go forward wisely.

    SV Mabrouka

  4. John H says:

    Hi Guys,

    This is horrific… I am beyond words and so very upset to hear this news.

    If we can do ANYTHING to assist you and/or the people of Matuku, please let us know.

  5. Chri und Katrin says:

    Hallo Ihr beiden

    Eure Geschichte macht nachdenklich und demütig. Ich bedaure aufrichtig den Verlust Eures Freundes, gleichzeitig freue ich mich, dass Ihr Euch aus dieser Situation retten konntet.

    Happy Birthday und gute Besserung.

    Liebe Grüße
    Chri und Katrin

  6. Zach says:

    Just stumbled onto your site via a link in noonsite, and are inspired by your vibe. My wife and I are full-time liveaboards as well who also spend lots of time in the water, so our imagination about what you just survived is more vivid than most…and therefore absolutely terrifying!!

    So sorry for your loss, most importantly the loss of your friend, and all the best in picking up the pieces. If this proves to be an inflection point in your lives, may you find peace with whatever changes it demands.

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